New Raptor Kawhi Leonard says he's excited to be in Toronto
Kawhi Leonard has always maintained an air of mystery, so it's no surprise he had been quiet since his blockbuster deal to the Toronto Raptors in July.
While many NBA superstars seem to crave the spotlight, the six-foot-seven forward chooses to shy away from it, which might explain why Leonard addressed the trade for the first time on Monday, more than two months since his acquisition along with Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and draft pick.
In contrast to reports that he had no desire to play in Toronto, Leonard seemed perfectly happy to be in a Raptors uniform.
"I'm excited knowing that they're a basketball city. Their fans come out and show a lot of energy and just [happy] being able to get on that next journey," Leonard said to assembled media as fans serenaded him from a balcony railing atop the Scotiabank Arena.
The 27-year-old is a free agent at the end of this season, and while his long-term future with the club remains uncertain, Leonard said he isn't looking too far ahead and that he just wants to be healthy.
"I came here with an open mind," Leonard said. "I want to do great things. I want to make sure that I put all my effort on the court each and every night.
"My focus is on this year, this group that we have, and striving to get to a championship. We all want to win.
"I want to win championships, get in those record books."
Leonard has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, but you won't see him posting any photos or videos from workouts unless he's tagged by someone else.
He has tweeted just four times in four years and follows only six accounts — one of them being Wingspot San Antonio, home of Leonard's favourite Mango Mabanero-flavoured chicken wings.
He drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe nicknamed Gas Guzzler.
It is who Leonard is and Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri recognizes it's something he and fans have to get used to.
"That's his nature. That's how he is. He was like that in San Antonio," Ujiri said Monday. "We're not trying to change anybody here. Some people are quiet. Some people are talkative. Some people are noisy … I think we can live with that. On the court, it's a different thing. That's why he's here."
Ujiri dismissed the notion that Leonard had reservations about playing in Toronto.
"The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone," Ujiri said. "I think that's old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourselves
"It's frustrating because I can't believe a beautiful city like this would not believe in itself," Ujiri said. "We have to move on from that. Man, look at everything in this city: Look at the Leafs. TFC won last year. They won the championship after being killed for how many years? Look at the people. Look at how beautiful it is. Even Kawhi said that. He said that to me.
"To continue to hear about people not wanting to come here is actually irritating after a while. It is. Come on. Let's be real. People like it here."
Ujiri described Leonard as a basketball junkie and new head coach Nick Nurse got a taste of that during their first meeting together as they went through different schemes for the season.
"He loves basketball. There's no doubt about it. He's an astute player from what I can tell already," Nurse said. "I haven't had a lot of time to work with him. I think this relationship he has with all of us will grow but he's a hooper man. He plays hard and he plays to win."
"I spoke to him about how we can incorporate me and what I can do to make his job easier. Just bouncing ideas back and forth off each other," Leonard said of the conversation.
Over the off-season, Leonard was accompanied by Raptors assistant coaches in his home base of San Diego, participating in workouts along with the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant.
Leonard isn't satisfied with being good. He wants to be dominant, which is no surprise to Green.
The pair are close friends and have played alongside each other for the past seven years in San Antonio, where Green has had a front-row seat to Leonard's development from rookie to MVP candidate.
Green believes there's no coincidence Leonard has a long list of accolades, including being named to a pair of All-NBA First Teams and two-time defensive player of the year honours.
"His main focus is basketball and he loves it. He puts the hours in, the work in," Green said. "There's a reason why he's as good as he is. We're all expecting big things from him. We're all expecting big things from everybody on this team, myself included."
Just as Leonard appears to be all-in, so are the Raptors. Ownership has dipped into the luxury tax to retain the core, and has invested in resources like a G-League team and new practice facility that not all NBA teams have.
Ujiri doesn't feel that he needs to oversell Leonard on the Raptors. This is who they are and that has already left an impression on Leonard.
"They want to win — that's all you want from an organization," Leonard said. "Just having the same path and mindset of trying to get to a certain goal.
- with files from Canadian Press